Spring 2022 David L. Paletz Creative Writing Guest Series

Graphic Image for 2022 David L. Paletz Creative Writing Guest Series

This semester's David L. Paletz Creative Writing Guest Series kicked off with a visit from psychiatrist, poet, and fiction writer, Dr. Joanna Pearson, to Professor JP Gritton's "Intro to the Writing of Fiction - Great Artist Steal" class. Before her visit, Gritton's class read Pearson's short story "Riding," which primed students for a discussion of Dr. Pearson's approach to writing, especially the writing of fiction. In undergrad, she was a pre-med English major and has always felt drawn to writing. Due to her pre-med schedule, she initially focused on  poetry, which she described as  "bite-sized.” The more compact nature of poetry worked within her busy schedule as it allowed her to continue to pursue her love for writing while studying for a career in medicine – despite holding both an MFA in Poetry from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and an MD from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Pearson said that she does keep her career in medicine separate from her writing. 

Headshot of Joanna Pearson

Pearson shared that even as a poet without a formal background in writing fiction, she felt drawn to trying her hand at writing fiction. One of the things she loves about fiction, she said, was that it was a form that values entertainment and pleasure, while still pushing the reader to think, ask questions and consider things in a way that differs from their everyday perceptions. 

During the Q&A section of Dr. Pearson's visit, she was asked if one should write with a beginning or ending in mind. Pearson shared that she prefers to start from a place of "what if” in her writing. She and Professor Gritton both referred to John Gardner's book The Art of Fiction and its three ways to come at a story: retelling, knowing the ending, or having a starting situation. 

Before ending her visit, Dr. Pearson read an excerpt from her short story, "Romantics," published in The Kenyon Review and which is the basis of her forthcoming novel. The closing stanza of her reading was a cliffhanger that heightened the class's anticipation for her upcoming book.  

Professor Gritton closed Pearson's visit by asking her for must-read suggestions, in response to which she listed four short story collections: 

A Lucky Man - Jamel Brinkley 

Likes - Sarah Bynum 

Bobcat and Other Stories - Rebecca Lee 

Her Body and Other Parties - Carmen Maria Machado 

Headshot of Matthew Buckley Smith

2021 Richard Wiber Prize-winning poet Matthew Buckley Smith visited Professor Gritton's class and shared his expertise on the art of poetry. Griffon's class read two of Smith's poems, "Undergrads" and "Poem Without Metaphors," along with sonnets from various other authors before Smith's visit. Smith also discussed David Yezzi's essay "These Are the Poems, Folks" with the class.    

During his visit, Smith suggested ways to approach reading and writing poetry. He presented the class with two questions that he recommends reads consider when reading poems: “What does the poem do? How does the poem do it?” 

Smith noted that these questions often require reading a poem more than once.  Comparing poems to jokes, Smith pointed out that both usually do not give the audience something new but something recognizable, which is vital in both art forms. Readers often experience frustration,  Smith noted, when trying to figure out the meaning of a poem.   

"When you go to a comedy club, you don't need to discuss afterward at a coffee house about whether or not it was successful. You could tell right there if it was successful because people laugh or they don't."  

Smith spoke of his approach to reading any individual poem: "I don't know if it will be helpful or just frustrating to tell you that I think almost nothing about what a poem means. As I write or read poetry, I think very little about what it means, except maybe at a very mechanical sentence-by-sentence level because, as you know, it's tough to write a clear sentence." 

Smith recommended that students use tools that produce an effect, especially those that make poetry on the page sound like poetry spoken on the stage. Getting the audience to buy into their writing is critical to the work's success even though there are no steadfast rules for writing poetry. He noted that controlling the delivery is key to poetry grabbing an audience's attention. Smith pointed out that spoken word is all about the pitch and managing the delivery and how some works become famous based on their oral presentation, which leave a lasting effect on the audience. 

When it came to providing more general writing advice, he noted that T.S. Eliot is known for saying, "Write less, read more; Smith suggests adding "write a lot, publish less" to Eliot's adage. He recommended that students only submit works for publication if they genuinely feel they're superb, not just because they could get published. 

Headshot of Alice McDermott

The final David L. Paletz Creative Writing Guest for Professor Gritton's class this semester was American Book Award and U.S. National Book Award for Fiction winning author Alice McDermott. McDermott shared that, as a youth, she aspired to be a playwright, then a poet, then a short-story writer, but over time learned that she needed the space that fiction affords because her ideas were bigger than the space the other literary formats allowed. 

McDermott shared she has noticed that many young writers spend a lot of time figuring out what they are best at writing. McDermott advised the class to measure their strengths and weaknesses and write what is authentically theirs, noting that they should ask themselves if they allow the words on the page to lead the direction of what they are writing. She encouraged the class to clear their minds of predetermined ideas because those ideas can get in the way, although they often drive the writer to put pen to paper. 

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"There comes a juncture I think once the writing has begun where the simple creation of sentences, the basic working at words to communicate something, takes over, and that's the point where the writer has to jettison the opinions that got you there in the first place."  

Professor Gritton asked McDermott to read an excerpt from one of her works to the class. Noting that she is in the research stage of a new novel,  she chose to read the opening of her short story "The Post."   

 According to McDermott, one of the key takeaways she would like the students to have  from her visit was that writing and publishing have nothing to do with each other.  

Professor Gritton closed Dermott's visit by asking her for must-read suggestions. She recommended a short-story collection and a novel: 

Shit Cassandra Saw - Gwen E. Kirby 

The Making of Her - Bernadette Jiwa (Due out in August of 2022) 

For the third semester in a row, Professor JP Gritton has invited creative writers as guest lecturers for his creative writing classes with the support of David L. Paletz Course Enhancement grants.